Staff shortages are forcing some restaurants to close two days a week as official figures show Hunter job advertisements at a 10-year high.
The National Skills Commission's Internet Vacancy Index for March showed a moving average of 4896 jobs advertised in the Hunter across three major employment websites.
The index was at its highest level since the commission launched it in May 2010. It was up 19 per cent on February and had more than doubled since the COVID-19 trough of 2133 ads 10 months ago.
Hotelier Mick Starkey, who runs Customs House and Mayfield's Stag & Hunter, said border closures and a lack of willing apprentices had created a "perfect storm" in the hospitality industry.
Mr Starkey has been forced to close Customs House on Mondays and Tuesdays "purely due to lack of labour", and the Mary Ellen Hotel's Peter Mooney had been closing his bistro twice a week before shuttering it recently for renovations.
Another Newcastle pub had one applicant for an above-award chef's position early this year.
"It's an absolute nightmare," Mr Starkey said.
"Particularly losing international workers. We're screaming for them.
"Newcastle has lots of little restaurants and cafes and bars opening, and the labour pressure is getting higher and higher. It won't be too long before places can't open because they don't have staff."
The government told backpackers and skilled visa holders to go home last year and denied them JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments.
Labour shortages have persisted even after JobKeeper subsidies ran out at the end of March, prompting some Sydney and Melbourne operators to offer staff four-figure sign-on bonuses.
"It wouldn't surprise me if it's happening in Newcastle, because it's a good way to get people," Mr Starkey said.
"We already pay bonuses for people that stay with us for 12 months."
Mr Mooney said some chefs were reluctant to return to full-time work after the COVID-19 shutdowns.
The Newcastle Herald found more than 50 chef jobs in the Hunter on seek.com, many of them apprenticeships but others for head chefs paying up to $95,000.
Five-star hotel Kingsley, which will employ 100 people when it opens in four weeks, is advertising for room attendants, kitchen stewards, bar staff, junior chefs, waiters, an assistant manager and a night manager.
The jobs index listed a record 122 ads in the Hunter for hospitality, retail and service managers; a record 176 for chefs and food trades workers; and a near-record 175 for waiters and bar staff.
Other jobs with historically high vacancy rates in March included clerical and call centre workers (752), carers and aides (287), doctors and nurses (257), sales workers (382), machine operators and drivers (278) and education professionals (80).
Mr Starkey said border closures had exacerbated existing problems finding trained and talented staff willing to commit to full-time work. He has five full-time vacancies, equal to 10 per cent of his workforce, he cannot fill.
"We've got a huge skill shortage in this field, and it's not likely to abate. We're talking skilled staff like middle management and tradespeople in the kitchen.
"There's plenty of tradespeople out there, but none of any quality. We've been advertising for chefs for 11 months non-stop trying to find people of the skill set that we believe is good enough for our business.
"It's not relating so much to their technical skills but more about their mental capacity to improve even."
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Youth unemployment has averaged 19 per cent in Newcastle and 14 per cent in the rest of the Hunter in the past year, but Mr Starkey said many young people appeared to regard hospitality as "beneath them".
"We've been advertising for apprentices. I could put two on every year ... but there's none there. They don't want it," he said.
"It constantly blows me away that we have such a high level of youth unemployment in the Hunter but can't get apprentices. They don't want to work full-time.
"We've pushed our kids into university and basically said you're a failure unless you do uni and removed the worth of people who are doing the blue-collar jobs."
He said the federal government's push to create more apprenticeships and more jobs was meaningless if people did not want to work.
"It makes me nervous. We can't get people now."
Luke Tilse, who runs The Happy Wombat and The Young Street Hotel, said the "non-stop" stream of people who once walked in with resumes had dried up.
"There's a massive shortage of chefs. There's no new ones coming through," he said.
"It's been extremely hard to find staff for six months. I know people who have been running restaurants and bars forever and are thinking of leaving the industry because it's so hard to find staff."
He said hospitality work was heading the way of unskilled jobs like cab driving, fruit picking and labouring now populated by migrants because "you can't get the population to do them".
"People just don't want to do hard work. It's considered to be low pay, even though the highest-paid hospitality workers on earth are in Australia. It never used to be reliant on immigrants coming in to work in kitchens."
The Internet Vacancy Index included 1188 vacancies for professionals such as teachers, engineers, IT specialists, accountants and lawyers; 875 for technicians and trades workers; 595 for workers classed under community and personal services; 752 for clerical and administrative staff; and 461 for salespeople.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics reported a Newcastle jobless rate of 5.1 per cent in April, up from 4.3 per cent in March but well below the double-digit rates of last year.
The national jobs index for March showed a 44 per cent jump in job ads compared with pre-COVID levels to 243,000, the highest level since the pre-GFC peak of 300,000 in 2008.
Business Hunter chief executive officer Bob Hawes said some employers were having to offer more money to attract and retain staff.
"There's evidence now that some employers are having to go above what they have done before," he said.
"There's some remarkable changes in the job ads in the Hunter in both the high level, the CEO, manager level, and also down at the level where advertisements are more common. It's not one sector or one particular skill; it's quite widespread."
He said firms advertising for workers with qualifications, such as in the health sector, were "just getting no response".
"IT, cyber, advanced manufacturing, a bunch of things that were already flagged [as skill shortages], those industries are still going, but they're not getting that top-up from skilled migrants we've become used to relying on.
"The jobs that are more common but where you need some experience, they're getting a whole lot of inappropriate applications."
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